KEARNS — The Cavemen were down to their last two outs, seemingly destined for a disappointing 1-0 defeat in Thursday's championship semifinal game of the 5A state baseball tournament.
But this American Fork ballclub prescribes to the ol' keep-the-faith philosophy, so the Cavemen weren't about to panic or stop believing in themselves.
Instead, they came up with a clutch seventh-inning rally, pushing two huge runs across the plate in their final at-bat to grab a 2-1 victory over Alta that sent A.F. into today's championship finale, where they need just one more win to claim the 5A crown which eluded them last year when they lost to Bingham on the last day.
"I think being there last year and having Bingham beat us definitely fueled our team," said A.F. senior southpaw Blake Brailsford, who picked up the complete-game victory by scattering six Alta hits with three walks and five strikeouts. "It's good to get back there; it's been a fun ride. This is my senior year and it's been amazing.
"It's never over until it's over," Brailsford said, channeling his best Yogi Berra catch-phrase. "You just keep competing the whole time and until that last strike gets thrown for the third out, you know you're never out of a ballgame."
Cavemen coach Jarod Ingersoll echoed that same tough-minded, never-say-die mentality.
"I kept telling them, 'Keep believing, keep believing,' and they did," he said. "... I love Blake. He's done a great job and, you know, we've just been telling everybody to believe and keep thinking that and know that we're gonna get it done and we're not out of it until the last out's recorded. And we did that."
The Cavemen (24-5) will face Region 2 champion Taylorsville (23-7), which eliminated Alta 5-0 in Thursday's second semifinal matchup, today at 11 a.m. at Kearns High School's Gates Field. If Taylorsville wins, the second "if necessary" game would start at 4 p.m., and American Fork would have to lose again to be denied the title.
"It's a good feeling to be in that game because there's some unfinished business," Ingersoll said.
Alta grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Mark Cavaness led off with a walk. Beau Kallas' infield hit pushed him to second, and Brittan Wren smacked a run-scoring single to center field to bring Cavaness home with what turned out to be the Hawks' only run of the day.
Alta's solid, stringbean starter Brett Snyder made that lead stand up for 6-plus strong innings, scattering just four American Fork hits and two walks while striking out six Cavemen batters up to that point.
But after an A.F. batter struck out leading off the seventh inning, the Cavemen put their intense "you gotta believe" motto to the test. And they passed with flying colors.
Zac Haws and B.J. Eldredge, American Fork's No. 8 and 9 hitters, each singled to put runners at first and second with one out. Then leadoff batter Mo Flinders stepped up to the plate and promptly poked a run-scoring single into right field to tie it at 1-1.
"I was just excited to be up," Flinders said. "Everyone wants to be in that situation like that, so I was just excited. I love those situations, it was just exciting.
"I think, (Nos.) 1-through-9, we have tough outs, everyone on our team. I can't say enough about our teammates, everyone is just great. Getting on base is big for us at the end of the game, and the bottom of the lineup pulled through."
Following Flinders' game-tying hit, the next American Fork batter, Riley Ottesen, lofted a fly ball into center field, bringing home Eldredge with the go-ahead run as the American Fork players, coaches and faithful fans roared their approval.
"Obviously it wasn't my best stroke, but I got it out far enough to advance the runner to home," said Ottesen, who will likely be the starting pitcher for today's title game. "I was just thinking get it in play and, if I get a ground ball, make sure it's not hard enough to get a double play so that runner can score, or get it far enough in the outfield to let him score. So I guess it went far enough.
"It made me pretty happy to know that Blake is now stress-free, he can just go out and throw strikes and let our defense work."
In the bottom of the seventh, Brailsford went out and finished what he started, retiring the Hawks' final three batters to seal the deal. The last hitter of the game drilled a liner off of Brailsford's upper left arm, but he scrambled to find the ball and then threw the runner out at first to nail down the victory.
The dramatic win sends the Cavemen into today's title game, where they'll be seeking their first state championship in baseball since taking back-to-back 3A titles in 1984-85.
"I knew it was going to be a battle," Brailsford said. "... I threw strikes down in the zone and I knew my defense would take care of me. I don't know where I'd be without 'em. I knew (the Hawks) could hit the ball but, with our team, just keep the game close and I knew we'd find a way to pull it out.
"I knew they were gonna come through. Those guys up there, my teammates, I would die for every single one of them. They're family to me; I'll take anything for them if they need anything — even a line drive to the shoulder."
Alta (17-13), which had piled up 44 runs in winning its first three 5A tourney games by a lopsided combined margin of 44-6 — all three were 10-run-rule routs — was shut out for the final six innings by Brailsford. The Hawks, no doubt devastated and deflated with the disheartening defeat, were subsequently blanked and eliminated by Taylorsville in the second game of the day.
American Fork's gritty last-at-bat comeback was the stuff state tournament legends are made of.
"The back end (of the batting order) has been doing it all year. They stepped up and did a great job," Ingersoll said of the key rally-igniting hits by Haws and Eldredge. "We pressed a little bit in this game offensively. We've been pressing and we shouldn't be. But when it comes down to the bottom end and we need stuff to get done, it got done.
"... Our guys are a little streaky, and sometimes they get a hit and it just takes one to get us going. And we got that.2 comments on this story
"The kid's tough," Ingersoll said of Flinders, the A.F. leadoff hitter whose RBI single tied the score. "He's done that so many times when he gets those big hits, it's almost like he's better in those situations than if nobody's on and he's trying to get on base. He's been doing that all year long."
Flinders said he felt confident all along that, even when the chips were down, the clutch Cavemen would find a way to win.
"I actually never did think we were gonna lose the game the whole time," he said. "... I had confidence in Blake — he's a great pitcher for us — and I knew our bats would wake up eventually and come through for us.
"I was so happy (to see Ottesen's fly ball bring home what proved to be the winning run) I can't even describe how happy I was. It was awesome."